The Truth, Mainly - 04/25/2005

English major advice on Social Security
by Leon Satterfield

Now is the time for all good English majors to come to the aid of their President. Here's why: He's been taking it in the shorts over his plan to revise Social Security. Check the recent polls.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that only 35 percent of us favor the President's idea of privatizing Social Security. And 55 percent oppose it.

The Gallup poll of April 1-2 showed 61 percent in opposition to privatizing and 33 percent in favor.

And the CBS poll taken April 13-16 found 25 percent of us confident of the President's "ability to make the right decisions about Social Security" and 70 percent "uneasy" about that ability.

Clearly, the President needs help—even from English majors. Here I come, ready or not.

The first thing you should do, Mr. President, is stop saying really dumb things like you said the other day: "Telling younger workers they have to save money in a 1930s retirement system is like telling them they have to use a cell phone with a rotary dial."

Your point, I guess, is that because the Social Security Act was passed 70 years ago it's as outdated as a rotary dial.

That's dumb. Most of the U.S. Constitution is 214 years old. The Declaration of Independence is 15 years older than that. Are they also as outdated as a rotary dial?

English majors like old stuff. So do lots of other people. Rotary dials worked pretty well. So don't say things like that, Mr. President, or your approval numbers will drop even more.

But I'm here to help, not criticize.

First, you should know that most of us really like Social Security. It came six years after the 1929 stock market crash at a time when the Great Depression was playing hell with the country. You and most of the rest of us weren't around in 1935, but those who were—and those who've listened to their parents and grandparents (or English majors who've read "The Grapes of Wrath")—like Social Security a whole lot.

You might have Laura explain this, but most of us see Social Security as something establishing intergeneration dependence that helps binds the nation together. I paid my Social Security taxes to help people older than me. Younger people pay Social Security taxes to help me in my dotage.

English majors see that as a kind of patriotism that has nothing to do with war. You know, sort of doing unto others as we'd have them do unto us.

And your idea of letting us invest our Social Security in the stock market still scares a big chunk of the population. How many of us understand the arcane workings of the stock market well enough to know where to invest? Saying we can do it if we really try is like saying English majors can play football for the Cornhuskers if we really try.

Letting English majors put their Social Security money in the stock market would be the most socially insecure thing I can think of doing.

I know, Mr. President, you keep saying that Social Security will be bankrupt in a couple of decades. You may be right, so let me suggest a couple of English major semi-remedies:

•Make all of us pay Social Security on all of our earnings. Currently we don't have to pay it on what we make over $90,000 a year. That seems grossly unfair. My annual income never came close to exceeding $90,000, so I paid Social Security tax on 100 percent of my salary. But someone who makes, say, $900,000 a year, as I understand it, pays Social Security tax on only the first $90,000 and thus pays on 10 percent of his salary. Make us all pay the same percentage on all of our salary and it will not only be more fair, it will help stave off the system's bankruptcy.

•Retain the Inheritance Tax and channel it into the Social Security system—and quit misleading us by calling it the Death Tax. It's not a tax on dying. It's a tax on what you inherit if you've been lucky enough to have someone leave you more than $2 million. I'm in no danger of leaving each of my kids $2 million, but if I were, I'd be pleased to have them pay 18.8 percent (the average in 2003) into Social Security rather than have them corrupted by not having to share money they didn't earn.

And if those two measures aren't enough to keep Social Security alive and kicking, here's one more English major suggestion:

Swear off foreign wars, Mr. President, and put the money you'd otherwise spend on them into the Social Security kitty. Then just sit back and watch your approval ratings go through the roof.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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